Families separated at the U.S. border often don’t know when or where they will meet again. Many have to return to their home countries and wait months before being reunited with their loved ones.
On April 26th, we visited a children’s deportation center in Guatemala City. It’s the first stop for children released from detention in the United States, and provided our first glimpse of the moment they’re reunited with their families.
Parents and grandparents waited anxiously inside as children were offloaded from a small bus and led inside for processing. Some, like the parents of six-year-old Maria, had been waiting seven months to see their children.
Maria was separated from her father at the U.S. border in September of 2017. According to Vox, some 700+ families like hers were separated in 2017 during a test of what the Trump administration was calling a “zero tolerance” policy.
We got the chance to speak to a few families in the waiting room and spent some time with the children as they were processed. It was a tearful moment even for those of us filming the reunion.
Many of the families we’re seeing apprehended on our southern border are from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — three of the poorest and most violent countries in the world. The poverty in Guatemala has been a subject of many of our films and series for the past eight years. We’ve tried to document the great lengths our friends Rosa, Anthony, and Chino have gone to overcome the poverty they were born into. We’ve seen Rosa’s ingenuity starting a business to pay for nursing school, Anthony’s generosity with others in his community, and Chino’s perseverance to work 100 hour weeks selling dog food in order to send his sisters to school.
Regardless of the policies we institute along our southern border, the conditions that force families to come remain. There’s violence and extortion from gangs and corrupt politicians. Poverty and limited job opportunities hold back even the most talented. Ever growing family sizes from a lack of education leave some parents feeling desperate. When considering why someone risks their life to come to the U.S., it’s difficult to judge their decision when you don’t know what options they had to choose from.
Young people all across Central America will continue to wrestle with the complex decision of whether to try to leave for the U.S. until the root causes of migration are addressed.
It will be a slow process but striving to help Central America become more prosperous is a win-win. It helps those in need, while reducing the need for a costly and militarized border. Mexico and the U.S. have invested heavily in development in Mexico over the last 30 years. As a result, the country has improved their economy, lessened corruption, and cut the average family size from 6.7 to 2.1. Today, Mexico has a net negative migration to the U.S. — meaning more people are leaving for Mexico than are coming from it.
In the meantime, families like Maria’s get caught in the system — casualties of an outdated immigration policy. Since being reunited, the family has returned to Huehuetenango in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, a few hours drive from Peña Blanca. Their future remains uncertain, and unfortunately they’re in a worse position than before they left for the U.S. They have each other, but also a mounting debt that financed their journey north. DHS estimates people are spending almost $10,000 USD for a coyote (smuggler).
For an impoverished family, this debt can be insurmountable. The national minimum wage in Guatemala from a good, formal sector job is only $346 a month. And you would be lucky to make this much in a country where over 50% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. In conversation with us, Maria’s father Pedro reflected on his own reason for going north: “We don’t have a house. This is why I went. To make some money to build a house and have a good life.”
His families’ options from here are fewer than before. If you were in their shoes, what choice would you make next? I can only imagine we would consider trying the journey to the U.S. a second time.
We will continue to follow Maria’s story and keep you updated on our Facebook and Instagram. For now, if you’re looking for ways to help migrants on the border, we encourage you to use this resource by the Emerson Collective. There are smart, compassionate ways each of us can help.
[Note: names have been changed to protect identities.]